Luton Town and Coventry City are just one game away from completing miracle promotion campaigns from the Championship to the riches of the English Premier League.
On Sunday morning (AEST), the two clubs will meet at Wembley in the so-called richest game in football, the Championship Play-Off Final, aiming to join Burnley and Sheffield United at the top of the English footballing pyramid.
Coventry boss Mark Robins told reporters after his side’s victory over Middlesbrough that this year’s Play-off final was “one for the romantics” — and he has good reason.
Just five years ago Luton vs Coventry was a fixture you could find in England’s fourth tier.
Both clubs have overcome significant hurdles to get to this position, beating existence-threatening financial issues as well as more fancied — and far better backed — clubs to the play-off spots in one of the most competitive leagues in world football.
Who are Luton Town?
Situated in Bedfordshire, just to the north of London and about 20 kilometres outside the M25, Luton are easily one of the more unfashionable clubs to fight for promotion in recent years.
The club have played in the top flight before — they spent 16 seasons in the highest division, most recently in the 1991/92 season.
In fact, the club was one of the original 22 first-division clubs that resigned from the Football League to create the Premier League in 1992 — and the only one of those 22 clubs to never have played in it.
Just nine years ago the club were playing in the National Conference — that’s the fifth tier of English football.
That came after the club spent the best part of a season in administration in 2007/08 — one of three periods of administration in the space of a decade — which culminated in the club being docked a historic 30 points which lead to them dropping out the Football League for the first time in their history.
The club spent five years in non-league, then enjoyed promotions in 2013/14, 2017/18 and 2018/19 to rocket back into the second tier for the first time in 12 years.
Luton has done it on what can only be described as a shoestring budget compared to most of their rivals — a wage bill almost half that of the average for the league and far lower than most of their Championship rivals.
In fact, last season, only three teams generated less income in the Championship than Luton. One of those is their opponent on Sunday.
What about Coventry City?
The Sky Blues have also endured a tough time since their relegation from the Premier League in 2001, a demotion that ended a 34-year run of top-flight football for the club.
The 22 years the club spent outside the top flight have been turbulent, to say the least.
They moved from their home of 106 years, Highfield Road, to a brand new, 32,609-capacity stadium on the outskirts of the city — which they were evicted. Twice.
The club even came within a whisker of folding completely. Twice.
Just 10 years ago the club was placed into liquidation and was relegated to the fourth tier for the first time in 58 years after being hit with a 10-point deduction from the Football League.
The club did continue to play though, dropping into the fourth tier in 2017.
The club were promoted again at the first time of asking, but a second eviction from their stadium took place between 2019 and 2021 due to a dispute with new stadium owners Wasps Rugby Club.
That uncertainty was cast aside by the players as they earned promotion back to the second tier in 2020 and now, a return to the Premier League that would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago.
Luton’s Kenilworth Road stadium is unique — and not fit for the Premier League
Kenilworth Road is, to put it politely, a throwback to a forgotten era long consigned to the history books.
It holds just 10,226 supporters, housed in a collection of terraces, mismatched old stands with wooden seats and, somewhat absurdly, a row of what look like conservatories that run along one side of the pitch, the budget equivalent of executive boxes that is the source of much mirth from opposition supporters.
Yet despite all that, it is hard to think of Kenilworth Road as anything other than a proper football ground of the like that rarely exist in the modern era.
Home of the Hatters since 1905, the ground “hasn’t changed an awful lot over that time,” according to chief executive Gary Sweet.
Nestled amongst terraced houses, walking to the ground takes place amidst a myriad of narrow alleyways and roads.
Access to the away end, the Oak Stand, uniquely takes you between two houses within a terrace on Oak Road.
After going through ancient turnstiles, up some rickety stairs from which you can look down into the narrow gardens of the neighbouring residents and down again into a concrete terrace.
Kenilworth Road is almost always full these days, but given the dated facilities, a new 23,000 city-centre stadium is in the latter stages of being planned.
But that will come far too late for the Premier League, should Luton be successful on Sunday, meaning extensive works will be needed to get the ground Premier League ready.
“There’s rather a lot of work to do,” Sweet told the BBC.
“To be able to get Kenilworth Road ready now, just for maybe two or three years, is maybe more of a gargantuan task than building a new stadium.”
That includes rebuilding the much-maligned Bobbers Stand to comply with broadcast requirements, which the club estimate will cost 10 million pounds ($18,732,350).
Aside from that cosmetic change though, Kenilworth Road will remain its unique quirky self amongst the super-stadiums of the game’s elite.
“Like it or not, Kenilworth Road is real life, proper old school football,” Sweet wrote in his programme notes for the final home game of the season this month.
“It should be embraced or scorned upon at your peril.”
He may as well have added, whether you like it or not.
The richest game in football
Not that a 10 million pound outlay will worry the club too much.
After all, winning the Play-offs could be worth as much as 135 million pounds over the next three seasons, according to analysis by Deloitte.
If that club stays up the following year, the riches could blow out to as much as 265 million pounds over five years.
That is almost all down to TV broadcast money which goes up from around 8 million pounds per season to 100 million.
“It’s wonderful for the town. If we can get promotion, we always know the town does better when the club does better, so fingers crossed,” chairman David Wilkinson told the BBC.
“The Premier League means everything. Financially it means we can move on quicker with all of our plans so it would be tremendous, but, [we’re keeping our] feet on the ground.”
Luton boss Rob Edwards said it was “surreal” to be so close to the top flight.
“We’re one game away from the Premier League. It sounds special, it sounds surreal saying it,” Edwards told the BBC after their 3-2 aggregate victory over Sunderland.
“The supporters have been through some dark times. To win a semi-final and get to Wembley is special.”
Those were sentiments echoed by Coventry boss Robins.
“We’re playing Luton who have been through a fair amount themselves, but this is a special club with special fans and the fact they’ve got behind us so much is testament to everything we do,” he told the BBC.
“The biggest achievement I think we’ve managed to do is reconnect with the fans — because there was a huge disconnect with the club.
“They’ve come back together, and it’s been phenomenal. It’s changed beyond all recognition since I walked through the door in 2017 and hopefully, we can take the next step.”